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Warnings on Transit Strike as Mayor Outlines Plan to Cope

Published: December 14, 2005

Publication: The New York Times

By Steven Greenhouse

With a contract deadline of 12:01 a.m. Friday, representatives of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its largest union met intermittently today to stave off a strike as the agency’s top negotiator warned “we are not in a good place” and the city announced a sweeping emergency plan to contend with any walk out.

On a day that saw some small movement on the key issue of wages, the negotiator, Gary J. Dellaverson, said: “We should be closer now. There should be more progress, and I can’t stand here and say that I’m comfortable with the negotiations where they stand at this instant.”

Then he added, “I still remain hopeful.”

He spoke just moments after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced the emergency plan, a sweeping, citywide contingency that would increase ferry service; largely restrict downtown Manhattan to high-occupancy vehicles; clear several major thoroughfares, including Fifth Avenue, of nearly everything besides buses and emergency vehicles; and institute a new policy that would allow groups of riders to haggle with cabbies.

The union wants 8 percent raises for its members for each of three years. Late in the day, the union signaled that it would accept lower raises if the agency would lower disciplinary actions against employees by 25 percent. The union did not specify by how much lower it would be willing to go.

The day of stop-and-start negotiations was punctuated by sharp criticism of the M.T.A. by the union, desultory court dealings, and frantic efforts by suburban railroads to put its own emergency plans in place. A strike by Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents 33,7000 subway and bus workers, would violate a state law barring walkouts by public employees, including transit workers.

“We don’t want to strike,” said Darlyne A. Lawson, the union’s recording secretary, “but if pushed to strike, we will make that ultimate sacrifice.”

Besides wages, the two sides are at loggerheads over pensions, health insurance and safety. Mr. Dellaverson hinted that the M.T.A.’s chairman, Peter Kalikow, might enter the talks today to help clinch a deal, as he entered the talks at the last minute three years ago to reach a settlement.

The city’s plan indicated just how seriously the mayor is taking threats of a transit strike and just how crippling officials believe a subway and bus stoppage would be for transit users – and the city’s economy – at the height of the holiday shopping season. “A strike would be more than just illegal and inconvenient,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “It will threaten public safety and severely disrupt our City and its economy.”

Gov. George E. Pataki, before heading to New Hampshire, made his most forceful comments yet to discourage a strike, warning of “dire consequences” and telling the unions “don’t even threaten a strike.”

“There would be no winners in a strike,” the mayor said. “And I speak for every New Yorker when I urge the T.W.U. to resolve the contract at the bargaining table.”

Arthur Z. Schwartz, a lawyer for the union, said the two sides were supposed to hold a hearing in a Brooklyn courtroom over the city’s lawsuit seeking injunction to fine the union $1 million on the first day of a strike and fine individual strikers $25,000, with the penalties doubling each successive day of a strike.

Mr. Schwartz said he was told that no hearing was warranted because the corporation counsel’s office, which filed the lawsuit on Tuesday, had not filed the papers necessary for a judge to determine whether an injunction was warranted.

“What happened yesterday in the filing of that lawsuit is simply an effort by the mayor and an effort by the corporation counsel to interfere with negotiations to try to intimidate the members of Local 100,” Mr. Schwartz said. “It is an utterly baseless lawsuit designed only to gather headlines.”

But Michael Cardozo, the corporation counsel, said the city intended to move ahead with the lawsuit, but was waiting to see the union’s next moves.

“Our lawsuit is designed to protect the security of the city and to recover damages that the city would suffer in the event there is a strike,” Mr. Cardozo said.

The state, in a separate lawsuit, was granted an injunction on Tuesday barring a transit strike or slowdown.

Top negotiators from the two sides have bargained little in recent days – three hours on Monday and 75 minutes on Tuesday. Mr. Dellaverson said he was sure the pace of talks would pick up.

“Have we been fully engaged? Yes, ” Mr. Dellaverson said. “Have there been enough meetings to adequately bridge the gap? No.”

Going into today, the M.T.A. had offered a 6 percent raise over 27 months. On pensions, a major sticking point, the authority wants to raise the retirement age for newly hired employees to 62 after 30 years of service, while the union wants to lower it to age 50 after 20 years of service. At present, transit workers can retire at age 55, after 25 years of work, with a pension equal to half their annual pay – which averages $55,000, including overtime.

“I have not by any means described our offer as our final offer, so therefore one can reasonable assume that I expect there to be additional negotiations,” Mr. Dellaverson said.

Many transit workers have said the offer barely keeps up with inflation in a year that the authority had a $1 billion surplus. But the authority predicts that it will have a $800 million deficit beginning in 2008.

The M.T.A.’s board voted today to spend much of that surplus, angering the union because it allocated none of the surplus to wages. Mr. Dellaverson said that the union’s proposal, with its lower pension age, 8 percent raises, and improved health coverage, would cost the authority $550 million extra a year.

Complicating the talks, the union has threatened to strike unless the M.T.A. also reached a contract for 2,200 workers at five private bus lines that the authority is taking over. Those workers have been without a contract for three years and they want to be given the same wages and benefits as other subway and bus workers, a leap that the authority is loath to make.

With no control over the M.T.A., a state entity, the city can do little more than wait and plan for the worst, Mr. Bloomberg acknowledged. The city’s plan was largely devised to reduce car traffic as much as possible through extensive car pooling, ride sharing, walking or bicycling.

Mr. Bloomberg said the city would close several major Midtown streets to all but emergency vehicles and would shut approaches to Manhattan south of 96th Street to all cars carrying fewer than four people during the morning rush. He also said he would create a new taxicab fare system that would allow for some haggling as cabs picked up multiple fares.

He announced a complex array of street restrictions throughout Manhattan.

The city will also set up dozens of car pool staging grounds throughout the boroughs where people who do not have four people in their autos can pick up passengers.

Taxicabs will be allowed to pick up multiple passengers, and charge based on a zone system. Drivers will be allowed to charge up to $10 off the bat and up to $5 for each zone covered during the trip. But Mr. Bloomberg said passengers and drivers would be free to negotiate reduced fares when possible.

He said there would be extra service on the Staten Island Ferry and the Staten Island Railway and private ferries would increase service, too.

But the mayor said the best bet was to work from home if possible and if not, to ride a bike or walk to work.

“All of us should be prepared to deal with significant crowding and delays and all of us should do our best to be patient and courteous,” he said. “By working together and looking out for each other, we’ll be able to weather the storm and New Yorkers have shown time and time again that we are more than capable of doing just that.”

Sewell Chan, Winnie Hu, Tom Lueck and Faiza Akhtar contributed reporting for this article.

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